Whether you have to duck out early to make it to a therapy appointment or need to take a longer leave of absence, bringing up a mental illness with your boss can be intimidating. Here’s how to ace the conversation.
After graduating from college, Abby, a 22-year-old from Nebraska, accepted a dream job as an editorial assistant at a book publishing company in New York City. She had been attending weekly therapy sessions and taking antidepressant medication for the three years, and felt ready for the big move. At first, things at work were great—both of her supervisors were pleased with her performance. So initially she didn’t want to disclose that she was still receiving treatment for depression. “I scheduled appointments during my lunch hour, so I didn’t feel the need to request a disability accommodation,” she says. “I didn’t really know how to anyway.”
But even though things looked like they were going well, Abby started self-harming. Five months after starting her job, she attempted suicide. In the aftermath, she missed three days of work without an explanation. It was time to tell her boss about her mental health struggles.
Abby’s case is extreme, but odds are there is someone in your office or workplace who is dealing with mental health issues. Mental illness affects nearly a quarter of women in the U.S. each year; 28 percent of women in a Glamour survey reported that their mental health struggles have impacted their career.
Liat had that experience. A 47-year-old licensed clinical social worker at a local government agency, she struggled with depression. About a year into her role in a new department, she got to the point where she needed to take a monthlong medical leave to seek treatment. When she returned, her colleagues and supervisor—all of whom are also licensed clinicians—seemed hostile. Her boss “reamed her out” on her first day back in the office about not completing all of her assignments before she went on leave, and she felt like the rest of her coworkers had frozen her out. “I hid in the bathroom stalls and sobbed,” she says. She wondered whether her colleagues might have treated her medical leave differently if she had been seeking treatment for cancer instead of depression. Five years later, things have gradually improved, but she never got an apology. “My coworkers and I have a pretty good relationship now,” she says, “but we never discussed what happened.”
Stories like Liat’s make the idea of disclosing your mental health struggles to your boss even more intimidating. The reality is that some bosses will always be jerks, but most experts agree it’s worth looping in your boss or HR department if your mental health is impacting your job performance. Every employee should be safe to disclose her mental illness to her employer without fear of retribution—that’s the law. And there have been huge cultural strides in destigmatizing mental health. “Better employers see it as a part of the process of what it means to work with humanity,” says Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at Mental Health America. These companies know that supporting an employee often is a win-win, since it helps the staffer produce their best work. While mental illnesses can mean time away from the office (employees coping with depression miss approximately twice as many work days per year) and job performance issues, many women learn to master the juggle and thrive at work.
When Abby did eventually tell her boss what was going on, they worked together to make accommodations: a flexible schedule that allowed her to take time off during the day when she needed to see her therapist and extra sick days that she could make up when she was feeling better. “I always felt really supported,” she says. Looping her boss in allowed her to get back on track and even excel in her role—a year later, she earned a promotion.